DHS IG Finds 22 Ports Not Adequately Screening Cargo Containers for Radiation; Former Port Security Official Provides Insight

Cargo containers arriving at the 22 maritime ports through which the greatest volume of containerized cargo enters the United States have not adequately been screened for radiation as required by law, according to a new audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). And that’s raised the ire of a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The OIG’s audit also raised many questions that weren’t addressed in the audit report that were outlined to Homeland Security Today by a former Customs and Border Protection (CBP) port security official.

The OIG’s audit report, United States Customs and Border Protection’s Radiation Portal Monitors at Seaports, stated that “Although all cargo is being screened, we identified some radiation portal monitors utilized infrequently or not utilized at all …"

The audit report, which the OIG sent to Kevin McAleenan, CBP Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, said DHS "component [agencies] do not fully coordinate or centrally manage the radiation portal monitor program to ensure effective and efficient operations.”

“Specifically,” the OIG reported, CBP “does not consistently gather and review utilization information to ensure that it is fully utilizing all radiation portal monitors. CBP does not always monitor and promptly evaluate changes in the screening environment at seaports to relocate radiation portal monitors as necessary.”

DHS’s Inspector General further determined that the “Defense Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and CBP do not accurately track and monitor their inventory of radiation portal monitors. Given the radiation portal monitors’ limited life and the lack of funding for new monitors, CBP and DNDO should better coordinate to fully utilize, promptly relocate and properly maintain inventory to best use resources and to continue screening of all containerized cargo entering US seaports.”

"Initial estimates of the deployed Radiation Portal Monitors showed an average useful life expectancy of ten years,” but that “based on the initial estimates, some RPM equipment will become obsolete by 2014, with no useful RPMs at seaports by 2021,” the OIG report stated.

The OIG noted that “studies have shown that the service life can be increased with continued maintenance and improvements. However, DNDO has not yet funded or deployed technologies to increase the service life of current RPMs or decided on a new technology to replace them. In 2005, DNDO began to develop, test and deploy advanced screening technology through its Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Program, but DHS cancelled the program in 2011 because of operational and technical challenges.”

According to DNDO and CBP’s Project Execution Plan (PEP), approximately $623 million was spent on the RPM program between FY 2002 and FY 2011.

DNDO initially provided the RPM program with $25 million annually, but reduced the funding to $5 million annually. And “With greatly reduced projected future funding for the RPM program, alternate sources of funding will have to be obtained or significant scope and services mustbe cut,” the OIG audit concluded, adding, “The reduction of program services will retain only the most critical functions to support deployments and overall project management.

The DNDO and CBP “concurred” with the Inspector General’s three remedial recommendations and assured that they “will identify a single program office responsible for fully coordinating and centrally managing the program; establish guidelines to track and report the utilization of monitors at every seaport; and develop and document a formal collaborative process to ensure that monitor relocation is effectively planned and implemented to meet security needs at seaports.”

CBP’s McAleenan, whose Office of Field Operations is responsible for port radiation screening, is a widely respected, veteran career CBP official who “is open to new ideas” and has quickly moved to address the IG’s concerns that were identified in its audit, according to officials who know McAleenan and are familiar with the matter.

McAleenan “isn’t a traditional bureaucrat; he comes from the front lines; he’s a boots-on-the-ground guy … he’s going to address the OIG’s concerns — his priority number one is the nation’s security, I can assure you of that,” one of the officials stressed to Homeland Security Today on background. Other ranking CBP officials expressed identical sentiments about their boss. "He isn’t a desk jockey … he’s a security professional … he’ll see to it that [the problems identified by the OIG] are fixed, pure and simple," another CBP official said.

“One can only hope so, because I can tell you from all I have been hearing, [the problems identified by the OIG are] very bad,” a former senior CBP port security official told Homeland Security Today, adding, “Beside the RPM problem, there [also] is a problem with the scanners.”

“In reviewing the OIG report, there are major points that were not addressed,” the former CBP port security official stated in a detailed analysis of the OIG’s audit report that the ex-official prepared for Homeland Security Today. “The first is, ‘what is the real threat?’ Second, ‘what is the success rate [of the RPMs]?’ Next, what is the ‘real cost’ in terms of equipment and personnel and, finally, is there another alternative that would more cost effective and successful?”

“After 9/11,” the former port security official said, “the government went through numerous knee-jerk reactions adding new departments and new security measures that have caused the expenditure of billions of dollars, and have yet to fully address the real cause of 9/11, and that was the immigration failure, which is worse today than ever. They have put programs into effect that appear to be security measures, but in reality are smoke and mirrors, not really addressing the real threats.  RPM’s, and container scanning devices, both are very costly, and both have major shortfalls.”

The OIG said it was “unable to determine" whether DNDO and CBP initially deployed Radiation Portal Monitors [RPM] to ensure operational efficiency, because the components did not thoroughly document deployment decisions and plans.

“Unfortunately, this report shows that this critical port security technology — which can potentially detect nuclear weapons or radioactive material entering the US — is not being managed as effectively as it must be,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement Friday in response to the newly disclosed IG audit.

“With limited resources to scan the millions of containers entering the US each year, we cannot afford to mismanage this critical technology resource,” Thompson said. He “urge[d] DNDO and CBP to follow through on the Inspector General’s recommendations and enact the necessary changes to track and monitor this critical equipment.”

According to Thompson’s office, the OIG audit report “found that while the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Customs and Border Protection are meeting the statutory mandate to deploy and use Radiation Portal Monitors to screen cargo containers at US ports with the highest volume, the agencies do not fully coordinate or centrally manage the radiation portal monitor program to ensure effective and efficient operations. Specifically, CBP does not consistently gather and review utilization information to ensure that it is fully utilizing all RPMs.”

“Neither DNDO nor CBP accurately tracks and monitors their inventory of RPMs,” and the OIG audit “report concludes that given the RPM’s limited life cycles and the lack of funding for new monitors, CBP and DNDO should better coordinate to fully utilize, promptly relocate and properly maintain inventory to best use resources and to continue screening of all containerized cargo entering US seaports,” Thompson’s office said.

DHS’s OIG said “CBP uses a multilayered approach of risk-based analysis, intelligence and high-risk shipment examination to manage potential security threats from the large volume of maritime cargo. The component screens shipments for elevated radiation levels using large-scale radiation detectors called radiation portal monitors. CBP has established protocols to isolate cargo and once detected, determine the level and type of radiation.

The RPM detection system is a passive, non-intrusive means to screen vehicles and containers for the presence of nuclear and radiological materials. Vehicles and containers pass through RPM sensor panels positioned on opposite sides of seaport terminal exit lanes. Two panels, situated on each side, contain tubes filled with helium-3 and polyvinyl toluene plastic to detect radiation sources as containers pass through the system.

In addition to radiation sensor panels, the RPM system includes other sensors to communicate alarms and system problems to CBP officers through indicator lights and audio messages. The system also includes ancillary components such as traffic lights, booths, and remote monitoring stations. The systems can detect various types of radiation emanating from nuclear devices, dirty bombs, special nuclear materials, natural sources, and isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry.

The Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006, as amended, requires all containers entering the United States at the 22 ports through which the greatest container volume enters the country by vessel must be screened for radiation.

To this end, CBP screens incoming shipments for elevated radiation levels using large-scale radiation detectors called radiation portal monitors. In fiscal year 2011, CBP screened approximately 24.3 million containers coming through all US ports of entry.

But according to the OIG, “Although all cargo is being screened, we identified some RPMs utilized infrequently or not utilized at all.”

The OIG audit found “The components do not fully coordinate or centrally manage the RPM program to ensure effective and efficient operations.”

Specifically, the OIG audit found:

  • CBP does not consistently gather and review utilization information to ensure that it is fully utilizing all RPMs;
  • CBP does not always monitor and promptly evaluate changes in the screening environment at seaports to relocate RPMs as necessary; and
  • DNDO and CBP do not accurately track and monitor theirinventory of RPMs.

DNDO tests, acquires, deploys and provides maintenance in the first year of operation, and CBP provides maintenance after the first year. CBP also has the lead for commissioning, operating and maintaining the radiation portal monitors.

DNDO reported that there are currently 444 radiation portal monitors operating at seaports throughout the US that are meeting the requirement to screen all containerized cargo at the 22 seaports with the most container volume.

But DHS’s IG audit report stated that “During our review of CBP data and site visits, we identified primary and secondary RPMs that were screening very few containers annually. Although CBP’s Office of Field Operations obtains a monthly report with screening totals by seaport, the office was unaware of an RPM that was rarely used for several years. Local CBP personnel at one port could not explain why some RPMs remained idle for years.”

“During our site visits to the seven ports selected for review,” the OIG audit report stated, “we identified 24 of 185 RPMs infrequently used or not used at all.”

DHS’s IG “conducted this audit to determine whether DNDO and CBP deploy and use radiation portal monitors to ensure the most efficient cargo screening at seaports. Our audit also addressed the congressional mandate in the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004, as amended, to conduct an annual evaluation of the cargo inspection system."

“If a major corporation were to expend $623 million dollars on equipment for a program (which does not take into account the money required for personnel), they would do extensive research and conduct numerous threat and risk assessments prior to such a major expenditure,” the former CBP port security said. “The basic risk assessment model is a systematic analysis to measure or analyze the value of all the benefits that would result from the expenditure. Units would then be deployed accordingly to the highest risk areas. [But] This was not done by CBP, and, in fact, no one really knows how they were deployed.”

Continuing, the former port security authority posited: “Is the threat the container, or where it was stuffed … or the port it is shipped from? What if it was in a foreign port and went through the RPM and then went to a transshipment port was off loaded and sat for a week in that port, then it was re-loaded on a vessel without being re-scanned? Is this a threat? What is the threat?"

“As an example,” the former CBP port official said, “an RPM was put into place at a particular port in late 2005, and this port had less than 300 containers per week, with none arriving from countries that would be considered ‘high-risk’ for a nuclear device. So, what was the threat/risk?”

The ex-official said “The OIG report stated that to date there have been over 2.8 million alarms world-wide, but during the same period, the only success for this RPM has been finding granite/tile, fertilizer and earth ware. No matter what these alarms [are caused by, they] must be processed as if there was a nuclear device, a supervisor called, etc., which is manpower intensive. Understandably, the [OIG] report fails to say if any of those alarms were valid, but that is the number you would need to calculate a risk/cost analysis to determine a success rate.”

“An RPM costs over $1 million, and, basically, it is a bell ringer to let the operator know that there may be some type of radioactive material in the container,” said the former port official. “When an alarm sounds, the RPM operator takes out a handheld Radioactive Isotope Identifier (RIID) — at an approximate cost of $15,000 — and locates and specifically identifies the anomaly, as the RPM does not have that capability. Think of how many RIID’s could have been procured and utilized by CBP field personnel for $623 million dollars?”

“Currently, with only 300 containers per week at this one port I know about, use of the RPM has turned into a ‘process’ with a life of its own,” the former official explained, noting that “The process has become more important than the mission, in that an inordinate number of man-hours in operations and paper work are expended verses the results.”

At the port referred to by the former official, “The RPM costs six personnel, 24 hours a day, almost 365 days a year for eight years, examining approximately 15,000 containers per year, with no positive results. Is this cost effective (keeping in mind this is just one port)?”

“In this example,” the ex-official said, “the midnight to eight shift is staffed by two very senior CBP officers who make 20 percent night differential for operating the RPM, which makes each of their salaries approximately $100,000.00 per year. On average, from approximately 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, there may be one or two containers that leave the port per night. The port where this RPM operates is a 24-hour port; however, basically, after 6:00 PM, the port is closed. So doing a basic risk/cost analysis, are we getting the best use of our taxpayer dollars? Should CBP and the port come to some agreement to save manpower and tax dollars by limiting container traffic to, say, from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM, thus eliminating one shift? Is this the best utilization of manpower? Does this making ‘us,’ safer?”

“From the day this example port RPM was put into place, CBP personnel watched as large delivery trucks, rental trucks and vans left the port with no examination,” the former CBP port security official added, noting that “The only things examined are sea containers.” So, “Again, using a risk model, let’s look at it through the eyes of a terrorist. A favorite saying of CBP officers is, ‘they know what we know.’ The terrorists are going to do their homework. If they have the skills and financing to procure a nuclear device or construct a dirty bomb, they are going to do their logistical homework and would not send a device through a port of entry that had an RPM. Just look how many years Al Qaeda planned 9/11. However, if it were imperative that they use a port with an RPM, they would put their device in general cargo and have it picked up by a box truck and moved directly out of a port without examination by an RPM.”

“One of the so called threats is a dirty bomb, and again, the terrorists who have the skills and capital could procure all the ingredients necessary for a dirty bomb in the US, as the materials are readily available — and, again, bypassing the RPMs completely,” the former DHS port counterterrorism specialist told Homeland Security Today in a lengthy analysis of the OIG’s audit report.

“It goes without saying,” the former official said, that if one nuclear device is located and stopped by an RPM, it would be worth the cost. But is there a better way to achieve a more comprehensive approach? A more logical approach — and one that would be more comprehensive — would be a container security device (CSD) located within the container.”

The former port security officer said “There are many companies currently developing CSDs,” and that “The Cargo Intelligence and Logistics Association (CISLA) is currently in talks with CBP to form a public-to-government partnership to secure containers from within. But progress has been very slow.”

“With major cooperation and combined research efforts, these CSDs could potentially include sensors that would alert to nuclear materials, narcotics and carbon dioxide [an indication of human smuggling], and “Tracking would begin at the container stuffing point and continue to the ultimate consignee,” the former official continued. And “This would drastically reduce cargo theft, and also would reduce the need for the Container Security Initiative (CSI) at ports around the world.”

“All of these reductions,” the ex-official maintained, “would save millions of taxpayer dollars in equipment and personnel.” The former official said “CSDs would be purchased and monitored by the shipper, and not the government, which would further save millions of tax dollars in equipment and manpower. This money and manpower could then be used more effectively securing the US borders. However, without DHS mandating the use of these devices, shippers will continue with the status quo.”

As the former port security officer concluded, “OIG reports are interesting, and disclose real problems, but many times — as in this report — they fail to tell the whole story.”

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Photo: A CBP officer inspects a truck at a port for radioactive material. Photo by James R. Tourtellotte

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